school lunch in Lunchbots Quad box

I don’t know about you, but it will be a big shift for our family to get back into the school schedule. This summer, we’ve been up late, sitting around campfires, eating whenever we feel like it, and loving the lack of structure.

But as summer starts fading into fall, it’s time to make sure the kids are equipped for the exciting challenges of a new school year. I’ve been blogging about healthy and green living, especially getting ready for a new school year at Non-Toxic Kids for many years. Here are my suggestions to help you get your child prepared for a new, healthy school year.

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Set Up a Waste-Free Lunch System

Packaged food in school lunches creates a lot of trash. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, a school-age child using a disposable lunch generates an average of 67 pounds of waste per school year, which equates to more than 40,000 pounds of waste for one average-sized middle school. That’s a lot of garbage!

Here are some ideas about how to set up a waste-free, toxin-free, lunch system for your child.

1. Lunch box: Try a reusable stainless steel lunch box that’s safe for food and easy to clean. You can also find safe fabric options at MightyNest, where you can sign up for a percentage of your purchase to be donated to your child’s school!

2. Reusable water bottles: You may already have reusable water bottles that your child uses. If you don’t, consider whether stainless steel might work best (they do make an awful racket when they fall, and they can dent) or if silicone-covered glass might work better (there’s a slight chance that they can break). Try to steer away from plastic — even plastic that’s free of bisphenol A (BPA). Not only do health questions remain about the BPA replacement chemicals, but at the end of its life, plastic is much harder to recycle than steel or glass. Avoid single-use plastic bottles entirely, if you can.

3. Containers: With the variety of stainless steel containers available today, there’s no need to use zip-lock bags and plastic tubs. Stainless steel containers can go in the dishwasher and are virtually indestructible. You’ll want small ones for snacks and small servings and larger ones for sandwiches.

4. Snack bags: Yes, there are yet more ways to avoid single-use plastic! To reduce waste, try eco-friendly, reusable cloth bags and food wraps. You may find these work best for dry snacks or fruits like apples or pears, although plenty of people use them for sandwiches as well.

5. Thermos: A stainless steel thermos is a lifesaver for busy parents. You can heat up leftovers from last night, toss them in a thermos, and lunch is (almost) done.

school lunch in Lunchbots Quad box
LunchBots Quad stainless steel food container is a healthy storage option for your student’s lunch.

Pack Healthy, Whole Foods

Americans have gotten into the habit of assuming that packaged food is better than food you have to wash before you eat. As a result, we have an epidemic of unhealthy eating and obesity on our hands. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Data from 2015–2016 show that nearly 1 in 5 school-age children and young people (6 to 19 years) in the United States has obesity.” Prepackaged foods can be full of sugar, sodium, artificial flavors and colors, preservatives, pesticides, and chemicals from the packaging. Here are some tips for packing healthy foods:

6. Fresh food: Include at least one serving of fresh fruit or veggies.

7. Easy, healthy sandwich: Roll up tortillas with fresh veggies and cream cheese for an easy sandwich.

8. Skip the chemical additives: If packing crackers or other crunchy snacks, buy natural brands without chemical additives, or, better yet, make your own.

Find a Nontoxic Backpack

9. Avoid PCV: It’s hard to believe that some backpacks are still made with toxic polyvinyl chloride (PVC, also known as vinyl). A tell-tale sign? The strong chemical smell! PVC contains chemicals that may have adverse health effects. These can be avoided by finding a backpack that is made from cloth like hemp, linen, or cotton.

Buy Eco-Friendly School Supplies

10. Look for recycled and biodegradable materials: You can find pencils, notebooks, and notepads made from recycled materials. In addition, try to buy PVC-free binders, pencil boxes, and organizers. You can tell vinyl by its strong chemical smell and smooth plastic feel. As a teacher, I can smell the vinyl school supplies and know that the air quality in the classroom is much better without these fumes.

Wishing you the best possible start to the school year for your family — including good sleep, healthy eating, and moments of joy and calm during this exciting and busy time.

What are your tips for a green and healthy start to the school year?

Imagery courtesy of Melissa

Editor’s note: Originally published on August 14, 2015, this article was updated in August 2018.

By Katy Farber

Katy Farber is a teacher, author, blogger from Vermont. She’s currently a teacher in Central Vermont and writes about education, parenting, the environment and sustainability for various websites and publications. Farber is the author of several books including 'Eat Non-Toxic: A Manual For Busy Parents'.